WASHINGTON (BP)–A spiritual giant has fallen, and when giants fall, the impact shakes the ground of people near and afar. The news of Dr. Jerry Falwell’s death came as a surprise to me, as it did to everyone else. But his homegoing may have shaken my ground a little more than others.
Few people — friend or foe alike — would dispute that he was a controversial figure. In fact, he gravitated toward controversy, which led him occasionally to utter statements that alarmed some in both camps. Unfortunately, the mainstream media has long been intent on recycling his less-than-flattering comments, leaving Americans and others throughout the world with a false impression of his true character.
I came to have the utmost respect for Dr. Falwell as I regularly saw him up close and personal while a student at Liberty University. He was a man of conviction, a man of prayer, a man of vision, a man with a heart for winning souls to faith in Jesus Christ and a man who recognized the importance of the Christian’s voice in the public square.
As the son of a well-to-do alcoholic, agnostic father, he was an unlikely candidate to become an impassioned preacher and political activist for biblical values. But God never places qualifications on those He can use mightily. Dr. Falwell’s mother, a committed Christian who took him weekly to Sunday School, can be credited greatly in leading him toward his salvation experience on Jan. 20, 1952, and lifelong service to Christ.
Though he never served as a youth pastor, “Uncle Jerry,” as his Liberty students endearingly knew him, described himself as a youth pastor at heart. Perhaps that stems from his first experience in ministry as a student at Baptist Bible College in Springfield, Mo., when a Sunday School superintendent reluctantly gave him one 11-year-old as a student. That one multiplied to more than 50 in a single year, with more than 100 showing up for special activities. To shuttle the young boys to church, he squeezed as many as 14 in his 1948 Plymouth coupe and recruited fellow college students to pick up the others. It was during those years that he really learned to pray, routinely locking himself in an empty dorm room for several hours following classes to get in tune with God. He also began a lifelong habit of blocking 30 minutes to an hour each morning solely for Bible study and prayer.
Returning to his quiet hometown of Lynchburg, Va., following graduation in 1956, he soon founded Thomas Road Baptist Church with 35 adults in an old Donald Duck Bottling Company plant. He again labored to build a body of believers. In those initial days, he went door-to-door throughout the surrounding neighborhoods from 9 a.m. until sometimes 10 p.m. to introduce himself and invite those individuals and their families to his new church, if they were not already involved in another church. His goal was to knock on 100 doors daily, Monday through Saturday, and by the church’s one-year anniversary attendance had swelled to 864. He ultimately saw the church grow to 24,000 members.
God soon expanded Dr. Falwell’s vision beyond the church and burdened him to found an unashamedly Christian educational system in Lynchburg, beginning with K-12 grades and later a university, seminary, and law school. And he wanted all those schools, along with his church, to share the same campus. He drew inspiration from the Old Testament’s Caleb and prayer-walked — with deliberate, short steps — the wooded mountain on which he hunted as a boy, asking God to “give me that mountain” (see Joshua 14).
However, God led him from the mountaintop into the valley before eventually giving him all 4,400 acres of Liberty Mountain and adjacent land. Facing financial troubles several years ago, Dr. Falwell embarked on a 40-day fast, asking God to provide the money necessary to keep the university from sinking into bankruptcy and losing its accreditation. But after 40 days, he had received no additional money. He resumed eating for 25 days before God led him to fast for another 40 days and pray for God’s intervention. As a result, Dr. Falwell dropped 82 pounds, but grew to be more of a spiritual heavyweight, and God gave the university $27 million to prevent bankruptcy and loss of accreditation.
Through the valleys and on the mountaintops, his vision for Liberty always remained the same: to train young champions for Christ to serve in every sphere — from pastors to attorneys to businessmen to physicians to journalists to U.S. Supreme Court justices.
With his booming voice, large stature, and trademark black suit and red tie, Dr. Falwell’s presence on the campus of Liberty was unmistakable. He barreled down campus streets and occasionally tested the roadworthiness of sidewalks in his black Suburban, with tires and fenders often caked in red clay—evidence that he’d been surveying new construction or just out to talk to God. While a visitor might mistake his driving as an attempt to mow down students on foot, we all knew he just wanted to give us a scare and himself a laugh. No casualties or bodily injuries ever resulted — only fond memories.
Some 50 years into his ministry, his presence in the pulpit each Wednesday morning for Liberty’s convocation services drew, almost without exception, extended cheers and applause from the nearly 10,000 students packed into the basketball arena.
Part of the reason he was used so greatly by the Lord was his refusal to allow setbacks to discourage him. He reminded his students and congregation frequently, “You do not determine a man’s greatness by his talent or wealth, as the world does, but rather by what it takes to discourage him.”
He didn’t let age slow him down or dampen his wonderful sense of humor. He often joked, “If you hear I’ve died, don’t believe it. I’m opposed to dying.” Unfortunately, reports of his death this time were true. He was known to have petitioned God for another 15 years, as God granted to Hezekiah. But we are reminded in Psalm 90:10 that “Our lives last seventy years or, if we are strong, eighty years. Even the best of them are struggle and sorrow; indeed, they pass quickly and we fly away.” The Lord saw fit to give Dr. Falwell three extra years; but for a reason we will never know this side of eternity, He gave him an unexpected graduation — just four days before several thousand of his Liberty students would have their own graduation of a different sort.
During the funeral of Dr. Adrian Rogers, another spiritual giant who greatly impacted my life, his successor, Dr. Steve Gaines said, “You don’t follow Adrian Rogers. You just show up and say, ‘May the grace of God help me.'” Dr. Rogers, at age 74, was called home to be with Jesus 18 months to the day prior to Dr. Falwell’s death. Dr. Falwell, like Dr. Rogers, will not be replaced. His two sons, buttressed by others, will carry on the work he began more than 50 years ago, but the ministry — Thomas Road Baptist Church, Liberty University, the Elim Home for Alcoholics, the Liberty Godparent Home for Unwed Mothers, and so on — will inevitably take a different shape. He would only hope that the message, summed up in the lapel pin he often wore, remains the same: “Jesus First.”
Fortunately, our faith does not rest in a man, such as Jerry Falwell, but in the God-Man, Jesus Christ. Dr. Falwell’s life serves as a reminder that God calls each of us to stand in the gap for Him. That gap grew much wider, however, with Dr. Falwell’s departure from this temporary home.
I am honored to have known him, to have learned from his teaching and example, and to have graduated from his university built by much prayer, faith and fasting. It is doubtful I would find myself serving the Lord today with the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission in Washington, D.C., were it not for his godly example and call for Christians to be salt and light in the culture.
As Dr. Falwell entered the final quarter of his life, his earnest desire was to finish well, having witnessed several godly men before him shipwreck their faith in momentary lapses of judgment.
Dr. Falwell, you did finish the course well. May God give us the grace to do the same.
Doug Carlson works for the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission in Washington, D.C.